Photography: A Critical Introduction – chapter 5

Chapter 5, ‘The subject as object: Photography and the human body’ is contributed by Michelle Henning, a multimedia artist and (in 2000) lecturer in the School of Cultural Studies at the University of the West of England. It is perhaps best seen as a set of four mini-chapters, mostly unlinked although there is a connection between social control and censorship, which are themes of the first and second sections.

I picked this chapter for review because the first section, subtitled ‘Embodying social difference’ includes some comments on the work of Francis Galton, which is also referenced in comments made by my tutor in his feedback on my second assignment

Embodying social difference

This section is about typology, archiving and control. There are two aspects to this. First, the use of standardised record photographs as part of databases or ‘archives’ (originally paper-based, now more likely digital). The obvious example is the police record of criminals, particularly when supplemented by other data such as Bertillon measurements, used for the identification of repeat offenders. Other uses are less obvious, until we are reminded by a quote from John Tagg (1988, in Wells 2000,223) ‘These are the traces of power, repeated countless times, whenever the photographer prepared an exposure, in police cell, prison, consultation room, home or school’. Institutions of all types need records, archives and identification, and photography is one medium to provide them.

More sinister is the use of photographic typology to define and stigmatise groups or ‘types’ on social, religious or racial lines. Photography grew up at the same time as the Victorian pseudosciences of phrenology and physiognomy which both claimed to read character or mental functioning from external appearances, in skull shape or facial features respectively. (This could be related to some of the more outlandish ‘deductions’ made in the contemporary Sherlock Holmes stories). The claim to be able to read character in a portrait photograph is one that we have, perhaps, all made but it was taken to extremes in the work of Francis Galton and others.

Galton, in the 1880s, developed a technique for making composite portraits by which he attempts to isolate features that define particular types. The book (Wells 2000, 223) gives an example of ‘The Jewish Type’ but Galton also used the technique to ‘identify’ facial features of types of criminals. Henning regards Galton’s work as fundamentally racist, and notes that Galton was a pioneer of the eugenics movement, and that his classifications were embraced by Nazism.

She briefly refers to latter-day examples of composite photography in the political works of Nancy Burson and in some advertising uses.

Objects of desire

This section, the longest in the chapter, appears to deal with nudity, pornography and censorship from a feminist perspective. Apart from a brief reference to American ‘physique’ publications, all discussion is of erotic portrayal of the female form for a presumed heterosexual male viewer. However, the starting point (Wells 2000, 226) is a presumption that all representations of women, clothed or not, including advertising and fashion images, are about objectification for a male gaze.

This is justified, over the next couple of pages, by a discussion of the Freudian concepts of voyeurism and fetishism (by which a physical object – such as a shoe or a photograph – takes on a sexual significance).

A question raised, but not satisfactorily answered, is how to distinguish ‘feminist political opposition’ to certain images from ‘conservative disgust’ (Wells 2000, 229). However, the question leads into an interesting history, comparing the grotesques of medieval carnival, with its glee about bodily functions, with the ‘classical nude’ (smooth and orifice-less) and seeing a basis for class distinctions. Photography, having democratised art is seen as a way of challenging social hierarchies with magazines such as Hustler (specifically named in distinction from the more tasteful images in Playboy or Penthouse) bringing the carnival grotesque back to the notice of the bourgeoisie.

The censorship debate concentrates on the American experience, allying conservative feminists with the religious right although each are anti-pornography for different reasons. By contrast, what is described as ‘queer culture’ sees some forms of pornography – particularly homosexuality and cross-dressing – as a way of bringing unconventional practices to mainstream attention. Given that the edition I am reviewing was written before the current flowering of ‘gender politics’, it would be interesting to view a current version of this chapter.

Technological bodies

This section conflates the concept of the ‘camera as mechanical eye’ with the ‘body as machine’. The stop-motion images of Muybridge and Marey gave the Victorians an understanding of how the body ‘works’ as it moves. This has parallel in the 20th century with the ‘science of work’ and ‘time and motion’ theories of Taylor, Gilbreth and their followers, who used motion pictures as part of their study.

We also see a merging of human and machine in art and advertising.

Photography and death

This short section starts with Victorian post-mortem photography as memento, and an advertised service. Photographs continue to preserve memories but, from about 1880 there is an unease about photographing the dead. Effectively, our photographic memories of the dead are images made while they were still living. This section finishes with a brief introduction to two art photographers, Sue Fox and Andres Serrano, who photograph in mortuaries. Serrano’s images, in particular, have the ‘only sleeping’ look of the Victorian post-mortem images


Overall, I found this chapter difficult to read, partly because it is aggressively feminist and partly because it is disjointed, bouncing from subject to subject with no linking thread and no clear conclusion.


Wells, L (ed) (2000) Photography: A Critical Introduction (2nd edition) London: Routledge


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